A Heart in Winter (1993)

[15 November 2006]

By Kate Spatola

Cinema and music share a boundless faith in the universal authority of the unspoken.  Each relies on an implicit language that has the ability and audacity to make connections across an ever-expanding landscape of discontinuities.  Such communication rests, in part, on an unwavering faith in the power of dreams and the healing abilities of personal transcendence.  It is a balancing act whose foundation lay in an indefinable, tenuous, and essentially dichotomous state.  Not surprising, few films dare to explore such themes.  The French film Un Coeur en Hiver is among those few and shines with achievement from beginning to end.

Longtime friends Stephane (Daniel Auteuil) and Maxime (André Dussollier) are partners in a Parisian atelier that successfully caters to a wide range of world-class musicians and their precious, but bruised, instruments.  While Maxime handles customer relations, Stephane labors in the background, repairing the musicians’ cherished violins. 

Stephane’s knowledge of music and its instruments is so methodical, his attention to detail so precise, and his craftsmanship so exacting that he is both a master architect and a delicate surgeon.  The emotional equilibrium he demands of himself is mystifying, clinical, tenuous, and hints at a severe personal isolation.  Like a violin he is an austere and imposing physical vessel.

Stephane is a silent partner both in the business and in his personal relationship with Maxime.  His job requires a steadfast patience and an isolated dedication to the art of listening.  Stephane’s world is secluded, for he has devoted his life to the repair of damaged musical instruments and not to the understanding of music’s inherent emotional power.  The critical eye he must employ in his craft seems to have come at the cost of the warmth of his heart.

In contrast, Maxime is a sophisticated businessman who effortlessly tends to the personalities of their clients, relishing contact with such artisans.  Theirs is a convenient and mutually beneficial relationship, which has become so mechanized that it requires minimal personal effort or emotional involvement. 

The strict order and routine of their world is forever shattered when Maxime reveals to Stephane that he is in love with—and prepared to leave his wife for—their newest client, Camille (Emmanuelle Béart), a young and promising violinist.  Camille’s appeal is immediate as she is both physically stunning and a formidable musical talent.  Never betraying any personal emotion, Stephane greets his friend’s news with reserved acceptance.

An immediate, unspoken, and palpable attraction emerges between Camille and Stephane when he is entrusted to repair her damaged violin.  Thus begins the central narrative conflict between the three main characters and the more subtle, metaphysical examination on the emotional authority of (sexual) love and art.

Sautet’s employment of violins as the central metaphor of the film is apt and endlessly revealing, since the power of any musical instrument lay not with the object itself, which is content to remain calm and inert, but, rather, with the unique composition and individual talents of the musician.  The violin is but a conduit for any flash of violence, appeasement, serenity, sadness, love, or longing the musician brings to the work.  Stephane and Camille embody this duality and are instantly and equally intrigued by such fundamental strengths and weaknesses.

The sexual tension between Camille and Stephane is born as much out of a zealous pursuit of musical perfection as it is out of physical desire.  Stephane has the ability to repair and set right the mechanical defects of Camille’s violin, while only she can bring to life the music the violin was made to play.  Their attraction to one another is an exploration on the inherent power, ambiguity, and limits of music and love.

The delicate psychological, moral, and emotional components of this love triangle are compelling to observe.  Claude Sautet’s impressively restrained direction creates an elusive, fascinating, and seductive atmosphere.  It is clear why Un Coeur en Hiver won several international film awards, including two César Awards for Best Director and Best Supporting Actor.

The strength of this film, necessarily, rests on the performances of its main actors.  Dussolier adds a refined humanity to the archetypal character of Maxime.  Emmanuelle Béart gives a subtle, textured performance and the effect is devastatingly tragic and exquisitely beautiful.  Yet, it is Auteuil, in the role of Stephane, who is particularly brilliant.  Never betraying his character’s motives he allows the audience to view the full complexity of Stephane’s life without comment or prejudice.  In a carefully paced balancing act he trusts in the inherent dichotomy of Stephane’s nature to build dimension and reveal truths.

Un Coeur en Hiver was a hit with US critics and art-house fans alike when released domestically in 1993, but was virtually impossible to obtain on home video or DVD outside of Europe.  Koch Lorber Films should be applauded for finally bringing this superb French film out on DVD.  Their competent handling of this updated digital transfer should entice more viewers who were put off by the poor quality of the video.

Two brief television interviews by Dussollier and Sautet, the original French trailer, and an excerpt from a documentary featuring Sautet are included as extras on the DVD.  These supplements, while interesting, are fairly standard and far too brief.  It is a shame there is not a longer commentary by the director or cast.  These, however, are minor complaints and speak to the power of this film that after watching it you are left wanting more.

Neglected for too long by North American audiences, Un Coeur en Hiver is a subtle, intelligent, and provocative piece of cinema that should not be overlooked.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/a-heart-in-winter-1993/